Smelling of sweet resin the Aleppo pines'
shadows grow taller by the hour. Two identical
twin boys chase each other through the shadows,
the one who's ten minutes older yelling,
I'm gonna kill you while the younger one
laughs, Kill me, kill me if you can!
Day by day these teatime mortars
keep pecking at the blast wall that the boys
have grown so used to they just keep right on playing.
If they weren't here in front of me, I'd find them
hard to imagine, just as I sometimes find
my own twin brother hard to imagine.
I'm supposed to be doing a story
on soldiers, what they do to keep from
being frightened, but all I can think about
is how Tim would chase me or I'd chase him
and we'd yell, I'm gonna kill you, just like
these brothers do, so alive in their bodies,
just as Tim who is so alive will one day not be:
will it be me or him who first dies?
But I came here to do a story on soldiers
and how they keep watching out for death
and manage to fight and die without going crazy—
the boys squat down to look at ants climbing
through corrugated bark, the wavering antennae
tapping up and down the tree reminding me
of the soldier across the barracks sitting
still inside himself, listening to his nerves
while his eyes peer out at something I can't see—
when Achilles' immortal mother came
to her grieving son, knowing he would soon
die, and gave him his armor and kept the worms
from the wounds of his dead friend, Patroclus, she,
a goddess, knew she wouldn't be allowed
to keep those same worms from her son's body.

I know I'm not his father, he's not my son,
but he looks so young, young enough to be
my son—sitting on his bunk, watching out for death,
trying to fight and die without going crazy, he
reaches for his rifle, breaks it down,
dust cover, spring, bolt carrier with piston,
wiping it all down with a rag and oil,
cleaning it for the second time this hour
as shadows shifting through the pines
bury him and the little boys and Tim
and me in non-metaphorical, real life darkness
where I'm supposed to be doing a story.

More by Tom Sleigh

Space Station

(Note: a space station generates gravity by revolving one way and then another. When it reverses direction to revolve the other way, there are several moments when gravity is suspended.)

My mother and I and the dog were floating
Weightless in the kitchen. Silverware
Hovered above the table. Napkins drifted
Just below the ceiling. The dead who had been crushed
By gravity were free to move about the room,
To take their place at supper, lift a fork, knife, spoon—
A spoon, knife, fork that, outside this moment's weightlessness,
Would have been immovable as mountains.

My mother and I and the dog were orbiting
In the void that follows after happiness
Of an intimate gesture: Her hand stroking the dog's head
And the dog looking up, expectant, into her eyes:
The beast gaze so direct and alienly concerned
To have its stare returned; the human gaze
That forgets, for a moment, that it sees
What it's seeing and simply, fervently, sees...

But only for a moment. Only for a moment were my mother
And the dog looking at each other not mother
Or dog but that look—I couldn't help but think,
If only I were a dog, or Mother was,
Then that intimate gesture, this happiness passing
Could last forever...such a vain, hopeless wish
I was wishing; I knew it and didn't know it
Just as my mother knew she was my mother

And didn't...and as for the dog, her large black pupils,
Fixed on my mother's faintly smiling face,
Seemed to contain a drop of the void
We were all suspended in; though only a dog
Who chews a ragged rawhide chew toy shaped
Into a bone, femur or cannonbone
Of the heavy body that we no longer labored
To lift against the miles-deep air pressing

Us to our chairs. The dog pricked her ears,
Sensing a dead one approaching. Crossing the kitchen,
My father was moving with the clumsy gestures
Of a man in a space suit—the strangeness of death
Moving among the living—though the world
Was floating with a lightness that made us
Feel we were phantoms: I don't know
If my mother saw him—he didn't look at her

When he too put his hand on the dog's head
And the dog turned its eyes from her stare to his...
And then the moment on its axis reversed,
The kitchen spun us the other way round
And pressed heavy hands down on our shoulders
So that my father sank into the carpet,
My mother rested her chin on her hand
And let her other hand slide off the dog's head,

Her knuckles bent in a kind of torment
Of moonscape erosion, ridging up into
Peaks giving way to seamed plains
With names like The Sea of Tranquility
—Though nothing but a metaphor for how
I saw her hand, her empty, still strong hand
Dangling all alone in the infinite space
Between the carpet and the neon-lit ceiling.

Oracle

Because the burn's unstable, burning too hot
in the liquid hydrogen suction line
and so causing vortices in the rocket fuel 

flaming hotter and hotter as the "big boy"
blasts off, crawling painfully slowly 
up the blank sky, then, when he blinks 

exploding white hot against his wincing
retina, the fireball's corona searing 
in his brain, he drives with wife and sons

the twisting road at dawn to help with the Saturday
test his division's working on: the crowd 
of engineers surrounding a pit dug in snow 

seeming talky, joky men for 6 a.m., masking 
their tension, hoping the booster rocket's
solid fuel will burn more evenly than the liquid

and keep the company from layoffs rumored
during recess, though pride in making
chemicals do just what they're calculated to

also keys them up as they lounge behind 
pink caution tape sagging inertly 
in the morning calm: in the back seat, I kick 

my twin brother's shin, bored at 6:10 a.m. 
until Dad turns to us and says, in a neutral tone, 
Stop it, stop it now, and we stop and watch: 

a plaque of heat, a roar like a diesel blasting
in your ear, heatwaves ricocheting off gray mist
melting backward into dawn, shockwaves rippling 

to grip the car and shake us gently, flame 
dimly seen like flame inside the brain confused 
by a father who promises pancakes after, 

who's visibly elated to see the blast shoot 
arabesques of mud and grit fountaining up 
from the snow-fringed hole mottling to black slag 

fired to ruts and cracks like a parched streambed. 
Deliriously sleepy, what were those flames doing 
mixed up with blueberry pancakes, imaginings of honey 

dripping and strawberry syrup or waffles, 
maybe, corrugated like that earth, or a stack 
of half-dollars drenched and sticky...? 

My father's gentle smile and nodding head—
gone ten years, and still I see him climbing 
slick concrete steps as if emerging from our next door

neighbor's bomb shelter, his long-chilled shade 
feeling sunlight on backs of hands, warmth on cheeks,
the brightness making eyes blink and blink...

so like his expression when a friend came 
to say goodbye to him shrunken inside 
himself as into a miles-deep bunker...

and then he smiled, his white goatee 
flexing, his parched lips cracked but welcoming 
as he took that friend's hand and held it, held it 

and pressed it to his cheek... The scales, weighing 
one man's death and his son's grief against 
a city's char and flare, blast-furnace heat melting 

to slag whatever is there, then not there—
doesn't seesaw to a balance, but keeps shifting,
shifting...nor does it suffice to make simple

correspondences between bunkers and one man's 
isolation inside his death, a death 
he died at home and chose...at least insofar 

as death allows anyone a choice, for what
can you say to someone who's father or mother
crossing the street at random, or running 

for cover finds the air sucked out 
of them in a vacuum of fire calibrated
in silence in a man's brain like my father's

—the numbers calculated inside the engineer's 
imagination become a shadowy gesture as in Leonardo's 
drawing of a mortar I once showed my father 

and that we admired for its precision, shot raining 
down over fortress walls in spray softly pattering,
hailing down shrapnel like the fountain of Trevi

perfectly uniform, lulling to the ear and eye
until it takes shape in the unforgiving
three dimensional, as when the fragile, 

antagonized, antagonistic human face
begins to slacken into death as in my own 
father's face, a truly gentle man except 

for his work which was conducted gently too—
since "technicals" like him were too shy for sales 
or management, and what angers he may have had 

seemed to be turned inward against judging
others so the noise inside his head was quieter
than most and made him, to those who knew him well,

not many, but by what they told me after he died,
the least judgemental person 
they'd ever known—who, at his almost next to last 

breath, uncomplaining, said to his son's 
straining, over-eager solicitation, 
—Is there something you need, anything?

—That picture—straighten it... his face smoothing 
to a slate onto which light scribbles what? a dark joke,
an elegant equation, a garbled oracle?

Blueprint

I had a blueprint
of history
in my head —

it was a history of the martyrs
of love, the fools
of tyrants, the tyrants
themselves weeping
at the fate of their own soldiers —

a sentimental blueprint,
lacking depth —
a ruled axis X and Y
whose illusions
were bearable . . .
then unbearable . . .

In that blueprint, I wanted to speak
in a language
utterly other, in words
that mimicked
how one of Homer's warriors
plunges through breastplate
a spear past
breastbone, the spearpoint searching
through the chest
like a ray of light searching
a darkened room
for the soul
unhoused, infantile,
raging —
but my figure of speech,
my "ray of light" —
it was really a spearpoint
piercing the lung
of great-hearted Z
who feels death loosen
his knees, the menos
in his thumos
flying out of him —

the fate of his own soul
to confront me
beyond the frame:

no room, no X, no Y, no "ray of light,"
no menos, no thumos, no Z —

only sketched-in plane
after plane after plane
cantilevering upward and forever throughout space.

Related Poems

Two Set Out on Their Journey

We sit side by side,
brother and sister, and read
the book of what will be, while a breeze
blows the pages over—
desolate odd, cheerful even,
and otherwise. When we come
to our own story, the happy beginning,
the ending we don’t know yet,
the ten thousand acts
encumbering the days between,
we will read every page of it.
If an ancestor has pressed
a love-flower for us, it will lie hidden
between pages of the slow going,
where only those who adore the story
ever read. When the time comes
to shut the book and set out,
we will take childhood’s laughter
as far as we can into the days to come,
until another laughter sounds back
from the place where our next bodies
will have risen and will be telling
tales of what seemed deadly serious once,
offering to us oldening wayfarers 
the light heart, now made of time
and sorrow, that we started with.